There’s a reason why the biggest, fastest-growing group of homeless are women aged over 50, according to independent federal election candidate, Dr Monique Ryan.
“The gender gap is real, it’s significant,” Ryan told the audience at a recent debate for the Melbourne electorate of Kooyong, where she is challenging Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.
“The first thing, which for me is an absolute no-brainer: women should receive superannuation appended to their maternity leave.
“There’s no question about that.”
Female-concentrated professions such as child care, aged care, and disability tend to be lower paid, offer insecure hours, and have a flatter trajectory for pay and career progression, which leads to protracted lower earnings – and savings – compared to men.
The gender pay gap is 13.8 per cent, compared to 17.4 per cent when Labor lost power in 2013.
But add the part-time workforce and the gap widens to 30.6 per cent, according to official data.
Economist Dr Leonora Risse at RMIT University said economic modelling shows investing in the care sector will bring down cost-of-living pressures and promote fiscal sustainability.
“If you invest in the right things, you’re actually growing the economy without those inflationary pressures,” Risse said.
Making child care more affordable, which both major parties want to achieve, will free up more unpaid carers – mostly women – to go to work, spend more and pay income tax.
“But at the moment if the Government, for instance, subsidises household renovations, that’s simply putting inflationary pressure on construction supplies and house prices,” Risse said.
As well as cheaper child care and action on superannuation to bridge career gaps, advocates also want help for carers, mostly women, to get jobs, education and training.
Analysis commissioned by Carers Australia found Australia’s 2.65 million carers face significant financial disadvantage, even if they qualify for a carer’s allowance.
Carers on average forego $392,500 in lost wages to the age of 67 and miss a further $175,000 in superannuation, a report from economic consultancy Evaluate found.
Those who are informal unpaid carers for extended periods will lose even more, with the hardest hit 10 per cent losing at least $940,000 in lifetime income and $444,500 in superannuation.
“Carers are often hidden in our community, with initiatives for their specific support needs, be they financial, health or wellbeing, overlooked,” Carers Australia acting CEO Melanie Cantwell said.
Further, the COVID-19 recession hit women harder than men, in jobs lost and a greater burden of home-schooling, which put them further at risk of poverty in retirement, according to the Grattan Institute.
Six months out of the workforce can add another $100,000 to the average $2 million lifetime earnings gap between men and women with children in Australia, the institute’s research showed.
Official data shows the gender pay gap is at its widest in Western Australia (21.2 per cent) and narrowest in South Australia (7.4 per cent).
Labor has pledged to make pay equity a principle of the Fair Work Act.
Risse said the move is about addressing a roadblock in the system.
At present, wage claimants must provide evidence to the industrial umpire that workers in a female-dominated sector have skills and job descriptions that are on a par with a comparable male-dominated occupation.
“It’s a really tough ask because the nature of the work is so different,” Risse said.
Building the principle into the law itself would mean the Fair Work Commission can investigate whether pay settings in female-concentrated sectors are a reflection of a wider bias in how these industries are valued.
A case can then be argued that the industries are low paid not because they require low skills but due to social attitudes that don’t value some professions because they are “feminine”.
“It opens the door for the bench to consider how we have these implicit gender-patterned norms in our industrial relations system and in our broader labour market,” Risse said.
Australian Services Union leader Emeline Gaske said it would be “a watershed moment” for women across the country – especially those in underpaid industries – if this problem was fixed.
“Women know that doesn’t make sense – we experience the inequity of pay every day and know that it is real and unfair,” she said.
But the coalition says the principle of equal pay is already enshrined in law.
“The Fair Work Act provides for the Fair Work Commission to make an equal remuneration order, which requires certain employees, in this case women, be given equal remuneration for work of equal or comparable value,” a coalition campaign spokesperson said.
“In contrast to Labor’s hollow promises, the coalition continues to deliver for women in the workplace.”
There are 1.1 million more women in work today than in 2013 and workforce participation is at record levels.
Frydenberg agrees superannuation is “absolutely critical” to security in retirement and says the Federal Government has taken action to improve the situation for women.
“We got rid of what was called the $450 rule, so that women who were earning less than $450 a month would now receive superannuation.”
Around 200,000 women benefited from that change.
Another idea is to introduce a “gender impact assessment” across all policies – from tax cuts to infrastructure or higher defence spending – to check who wins from government decisions.
Gender budgeting is international best practice and is a way for governments to achieve greater prosperity and inclusion across the whole economy, according to the OECD.
“The current government doesn’t see a need for it,” Risse said.
Would-be treasurer Jim Chalmers in March backed a comprehensive and compulsory Women’s Budget Statement, slamming the coalition’s annual document as “some kind of marketing exercise”.
But the “stage three” tax cuts – supported by both major parties – will disproportionately benefit men because they are more likely to be in the higher tax brackets.
Due to begin in 2024/25, everyone earning between $45,000 and $200,000 will pay 30 per cent in income tax.
In regards to other gender-based issues, both major parties are committed to funding family violence prevention and crisis response.
Advocates and economists agree that investing more in policies that are specific to women, including stopping domestic violence, is crucial and should be above politics.
The Greens have called for $12 billion to support the ongoing national plan to end violence against women and children and a separate plan for First Nations’ women’s safety.
Meanwhile, the industrial relations umpire will soon decide on union calls for a 25 per cent wage rise for aged care and home care workers on the basis that current pay rates do not value or recognise their roles, skills and working conditions.
The work value case is scheduled for further hearings this month, but there is not yet a date for the full bench to hand down a decision.
If granted, the wages of 200,000 workers – predominantly women – would rise by at least $5 an hour, which would help close the overall average gender pay gap.
Advocacy group Chief Executive Women is calling for well-paid secure jobs in the care sectors, an expansion of the federal paid parental leave scheme, quality early childhood education, and workplaces that are safe from sexual harassment.
The group’s president Sam Mostyn said there is a ready workforce, but it is being sidelined by powerful barriers to their participation.
“We must shift from piecemeal policies that deal with individual pressures and change the way we think about our economy.”